PRIORITY

Criminal Justice

Reforming our criminal justice system is critical for social justice.

In 2003, I had just been elected mayor of Denver when a developmentally disabled boy was shot in his own home by the police. It was July, and there had already been five fatal police-involved shootings that year.  

The outgoing mayor, Wellington Webb, and the Denver Ministerial Alliance helped bring together Denver’s black community and, as a group, we initiated a number of reforms aimed at reducing lethal force and bias in policing. We required all patrol officers to go through crisis de-escalation training. We armed officers with non-lethal defense tools. We made it easier to discipline police officers who crossed the line. We created a Citizen Oversight Board and the Office of Independent Monitor to oversee the police department. We hired a minority recruiter for the first time in the Denver Police Department’s history.  

No doubt there was and is much more work to do, but the experience left me with lasting insights into the harmful effect of our entire criminal justice system on communities of color. We need to publicly acknowledge that many of our current pathologies are rooted in racist structures like slavery, Jim Crow and racist policies and politics like the War on Drugs and Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”  

On Friday, at the National Action Network’s annual conference, I called for a formal presidential apology for slavery. Slavery is the nagging, unrelenting shame of America that continues to deny the true promise of the country to too many its citizens. If we ever hope to change that, we must begin by owning our past and acknowledging the shame, the sin, the injustice, and the ongoing consequences of enslaving an entire race of people. A great country acknowledges its mistakes.  

But apologizing is not itself enough. This weekend, I traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The recently-dedicated space memorializes those lives lost to lynching, and it also educates visitors on the country’s history of racial inequity — from slavery to modern-day mass incarceration. We have much work to do for our justice system to truly be ‘just.’  

We can start with mass incarceration. In Colorado, we changed the sentencing guidelines for drug crimes and focused on rehabilitation and treatment, giving prosecutors the option of diversion instead of jail time. As a country, we need to go far beyond the new First Step Act, which includes critical reforms to federal prisons, but does not do anything meaningful about mass incarceration.  

We also need to end solitary confinement, which is not only cruel and unusual punishment, but makes it next to impossible for offenders to reenter society when their prison term ends. In Colorado, we banned solitary confinement for inmates with mental illnesses, and limited solitary confinement to 15 days for any inmate. Recognizing that solitary confinement is largely ineffective for behavior modification, we also required therapy and anger management classes for inmates with behavioral issues. Colorado’s prison population in solitary confinement dropped from 700 to 18 inmates between 2013 and 2017.  

And while we are taking steps to abolish cruel and unusual punishment, we should take the next step as well — ending the use of the death penalty, which provides no real deterrent, is unbelievably expensive, is highly racially skewed, and forces victim families to relive their tragedies as appeals drag on.  

We must also have an intense focus on transitioning out of incarceration, which means educational and job training opportunities in prison. We need a process for sealing people’s records for marijuana convictions, just like we did in Colorado. We need to “ban the box” and discrimination in housing and other areas that make it harder for offenders to get back on their feet. When I opened my first brew-pub, I did not include a checkbox on hiring applications that required applicants to disclose criminal convictions. And we were better for it.  

We are suffering a broad crisis of division in America today, with people increasingly living in different realities on everything from economic conditions to the kinds of media they watch. Justice must be different. The policies we pursue to ensure safety and fairness for our citizens need to be applied equally — and people need to feel they are being applied equally — if we are to bring Americans together again. 

This Op-ed was originally published on Medium.   

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